- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 13, 2003

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., Feb. 13 (UPI) — Superheated gases in the upper atmosphere blasted inside shuttle Columbia's left wing before the spaceship's breakup, a preliminary thermal analysis released Thursday shows.

Engineers are continuing to assess how the shuttle's wing structure may have been breached, allowing plasma into the left wheel well or other wing areas, according to the NASA report released by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

The report also states that even if the shuttle had lost a heat-resistant tile in the wing, "the temperature indications seen in Columbia's left wheel well during entry would require the presence of plasma. Heat transfer through the structure as from a missing tile would not be sufficient to cause the temperature indications seen in the last minutes of flight."

Before communications links with ground controllers were severed, sensors in Columbia's left wing area showed unusually high temperature spikes. Columbia was traveling more than 18 times the speed of sound — and five times higher than a commercial airliner — when it disintegrated over Texas on Feb. 1. Seven astronauts were killed in the accident.

Questions about the shuttle's protective tiles, which shield the ship from the 2,000- to 3,000-degree temperatures of high-speed atmospheric re-entry, surfaced after the accident. A piece of foam insulation on the shuttle's external fuel tank broke off during launch and hit the shuttle's left wing, videotapes of the shuttle launch show. Extensive analysis during the flight however, convinced NASA managers that even in the worst-case scenario damage from the impact would not pose a safety threat during the shuttle's return to Earth.

The report also dismissed speculation that the shuttle's left landing gear deployed early. "Flight data, including gear position indicators and drag information, does not support the scenario," the report said.

The investigation committee, headed by retired Navy Adm. Harold Gehman, wrapped up a two-day visit at the Kennedy Space Center on Thursday. The board inspected thousands of pieces of wreckage from Columbia that will be painstakingly reassembled in a hangar, in an attempt to learn more about what caused the shuttle's demise. The board flies to Huntsville, Ala., on Friday for briefings at the Marshall Space Flight Center.

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